Building even a single school no easy task

When talk began of the need to construct a new school following Hurricane Matthew’s destruction of West Lumberton Elementary, the assumption was that a site would be selected that would be convenient to the students who had attended that school.

And that is as it should be.

The West and South Lumberton communities suffered the most during and after Hurricane Matthew, and they are deserving of a nice, new shiny building that is safe and constructed to enhance learning — one that we guarantee will be the envy of everyone else.

The rub will be finding high and dry land on which to build. We are told at least 25 acres are needed, but more than that if the school is to serve grades kindergarten through eighth, which offers the best use of the tax dollars that will be required to build it. We believe the land the system purchased on N.C. 711 is a good fit for a new school, and the central office can go elsewhere.

The Robeson County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 5, with Commissioner Jerry Stephens expressing the most concern, admonished school officials for what they characterized as a fascination with constructing a central office and an indifference toward building a new school. Most folks saw this for what it was, an attempt to deflect attention away from the planned Angel Exchange purchase, and get the finger that was pointing at the commissioners aimed in another direction.

Stephens insisted that night he was interested in what progress was being made toward a new school. If so, he should have attended a meeting last week of the school board’s Curriculum and Construction committees.

Had he or any other commissioner bothered, they would have found out that work is being done, even if it is like a paddling duck, hidden from easy view.

There was information at the meeting on a study being conducted on the county’s demographics that will tell administrators where schools need to be built to accommodate population shifts in the future and best serve all of the 23,000-plus students in the system — not just the first, but others afterward.

There is a lot to figure out, which helps to explain the agonizingly slow pace that progress is being achieved. It doesn’t help that school administrators are laboring without a comfortable central office, and remember as well that school board members have other lives and responsibilities, and getting everyone together — and to agree — isn’t always easy.

The 64-million-dollar question — actually, it is much more than that — is where will the money come from that will enable this county, after the master plan is crafted and accepted, to build the schools of tomorrow? This county will never be able to manage that itself, which puts us in a very large boat with a lot of poor and rural counties across North Carolina. The distinction is, because of Robeson’s sheer size and our persistent poverty, needs here are greater and more difficult to acheive.

Two years ago a school consolidation plan for Robeson County failed because necessary legislation didn’t get the approval of the General Assembly, but to our confusion the closure of 30 schools in favor of 14 new ones was not warmly embraced locally, not even by the school board.

We know school construction will be on the General Assembly’s to-do list this summer, with talk being about a fund that can assist poor counties with construction that would be emptied each year and then refilled.

We are now finding out just how difficult it is to build a single school. Imagine the chore of trying to build what will be required as ours continue to crumble.